May 3, 2021

Growing Up Abroad Part 1: TCK Identity

Identity Development

“Where are you from?” Growing up overseas in one or more countries makes this question complicated (and sometimes frustrating) to answer. Home is this complex concept to define when you moved a lot and/or did not spend your developmental years in the same country as your passport. “Third-culture kids” or “TCKs” can be defined as children who grow up in a country other than their parents’ country of origin for a notable amount of their developmental years (0-18). This might include children of missionaries, military, diplomats, foreign aid workers, or international businesspeople. They are kids and teens with a passport from one culture, and significant lived experience in one or more other cultures; they develop a unique internal “third culture” lens through which they interact with the world.

Third Culture Kid

Third culture kid experience is as diverse as the world we live in, and is further impacted by whether or not you were homeschooled, in an international school with other expats from other cultures, or in a local school studying in another language. As a kid, you spend a significant amount of time in your school environment; you absorb messages about what is important academically, socially, and culturally. Language barriers can further complicate feelings of belonging, competence, and capability.

What are some of the strengths that TCKs exhibit?

You likely have a more expansive world view and can adapt to situations well. If moving a lot was part of your story, you might notice you are really good at reading a room and figuring out what is socially & culturally appropriate. You might find yourself helping “bridge” people from different backgrounds. You might be multilingual and have greater ability to consider different perspectives. You may have seen a greater range of human suffering than others, and have more depth of compassion and empathy. TCKs have tremendous and unique strengths that should be celebrated.

What are some of the struggles that TCKs deal with?

Grief and loss that is hard to articulate.

Many TCKs have had to say goodbye so many times to more than just people. You might have unresolved grief about the loss of places, belongings, speaking a certain language, a certain routine, ways of relating to others and being perceived in a certain culture. These losses are often hidden and not easily identified by other people.

Struggle to attach to people.

You might feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people, because it feels like no one gets you. The frequent goodbyes and struggle to be understood often leads to less energy to form new relationships. You might hate small talk or feel like people are superficial or narrow-minded. It might be hard to relate to certain pop culture trends that your peers reminisce about – you weren’t there and your world was far removed from it.

Cultural Identity Questions.

Who am I and where is home? TCKs often experience, “cultural marginality,” which means you feel like you don’t fit perfectly into any of the cultures you’ve experienced. Nowhere feels fully like home – you might resonate with the feeling of being a global nomad. You may have been to exotic places and had experiences that others envy, but silently are struggling with a sense of belonging that others seem to have with less effort.

These struggles can manifest through anger, excessive busyness, sadness, withdrawal, anxiety, or denial. If you resonate with this post and need support, one of our therapists would love to journey with you in developing a stronger sense of self and ability to build relationships.

Written by therapist Jessica Olson

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